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A children’s guide to the NSA (and a fairy tale for the rest of us)

Fairy-Tale-Cottage

By Simon Davies

Once upon a time in a kingdom not so far away, there dwelled a lovely family who lived happily in a picturesque village at the foot of a rugged mountain.

The family had an awesome mum and dad who cared dearly for their two wonderful children – thirteen year-old Jenny who wore pigtails, and Richard, who had just turned sixteen and hilariously still had lemon-sponge birthday cake smeared on his face. That’s because Richard was a teenager and viewed such things as shocking, and therefore cool.

Mum and dad always assured their children that the key to a happy family was trust and openness, and they would never do anything to mess up those dynamics. 

But no-one really cared that Richard had cake on his face, because theirs were such a happy family. Richard was smart, and knew his constitutional rights even before he was old enough to be arrested.

And Jenny, well, she was a mischievous young girl but she never said anything out of place, except to scream obscenities at Mr Hardman, the slightly creepy bakery assistant from down the road.

Mum and dad always assured their children that the key to a happy family was trust and openness, and they would never do anything to mess up those dynamics. After all, they each wanted to get along and be safe and happy.

But the happy family had not always been so happy. Not long ago mum had got paranoid after reading too many newspaper stories about drugs, and had decided to secretly search Richard’s bedroom.

And oh! The disgusting objects mum found. No drugs, but a very saucy magazine with lots of pictures of scantily-clad women in leather biker jackets. And a book written by a celebrated Cuban internationalist leader who advocated violence to enforce a utopian philosophy of the collective good.

Even though mum found no drugs – or even any drug paraphernalia – she got quite worried about the porn mag and the propaganda of an over-idealised Cuban murderer. After all, weren’t those the sort of items that druggies have in their possession? Mum had read about that somewhere.

Well, when Richard found out about his mum’s little escapade in his room he went ape! He stamped his foot on the ground and ran off to live with Uncle Monty who had an unsavoury reputation and should never have been allowed near impressionable young people.

Mum argued that Richard’s safety was more important than his privacy, but the angry boy refused to come home. He complained there had been a breach of trust. How could he ever believe in mum again? And what if she had discovered his little secret – the one he had ordered by mail in the plain packaging? His sanctuary would never be the same again.

Aunty Betty just wants to help the children

Aunty Betty just wants to help the children

To make matters worse, Jenny sided with her brother and started to act out. She chewed gum and wore tight clothes and even said the word “fuck” very loudly one night in the cinema, just to cause a controversy. After all, she opined, if mum and dad can break rules that everyone had agreed to, then why should she bother respecting those rules?

“Good observation” replied mum, “but you’re grounded anyway”.

Jenny and Richard agreed it was a case of one law for some, and another law for the rest. The children even thought of asking Aunty Betty to act as a third-party adjudicator, but she always sided with the parents so there was no justice to be found there.

Well, things settled down after a while and Richard came home – only slightly scarred by the infamous Uncle Monty. And Jenny stabilised too, to the point where you could hardly tell that she was still an angry and disillusioned young woman with a hatred of authority.

The arrangement seemed reasonable to mum and dad. And Mr Plod even offered to engage an independent person to scrutinise the use of the hole. As luck would have it, that person turned out to be Aunty Betty.

They all made a pact so the happy family could maintain trust – a sort of Bill of Rights. Richard helped out through his detailed knowledge of The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law (Michel Rosenfeld and Andras Sajo, 2012, ISBN-10: 0199578613). It wasn’t all that relevant to the arcane laws of their kingdom, but hey. You take what you can get.

They agreed to make sure that in the future there would always be probable cause before any snooping on bedrooms was done. And there needed to be transparency too. And some sort of due process and external review (Aunty Betty volunteered for that job but she was voted off by the kids).

Anyway, they all seemed happy about this arrangement and were able to get on with their lives in the knowledge that privacy and safety could be assured.

But one day the local policeman, Mr Plod, came knocking on the family’s back door and took mum and dad aside into the woodshed for a quiet chat.

“We have information” he said, in a slightly menacing but assuring way, “that there’s a bad element in the village.”

The parents both gasped.

“And we don’t quite know what this bad element is doing or who it is, but we need your help”

Mum and dad agreed to help. After all, safety was important.

Mr Plod outlined his plan.

“When you build that new window frame in Richard’s bedroom”, he whispered, “I want you to drill a small hole on the left hand side. That way if I urgently need to see who Richard is associating with I won’t need to bother either him or you with a pesky warrant”.

The arrangement seemed reasonable to mum and dad. And Mr Plod even offered to engage an independent person to scrutinise the use of the hole. As luck would have it, that person turned out to be Aunty Betty.

“We can trust her”, said dad reassuringly. “She always does the right thing”.

And that, children, is how our happy family struck a fair and reasonable balance between privacy and security. As dad said the other day, what a pity other kingdoms in the real world haven’t thought of it.